Policy analysts assume rationality on the part of their adversaries. That’s usually the right point of departure. The leaders of the Soviet Union were wicked, but not stupid. No-one calculates more coldly than the Chinese. But the assumption of rationality doesn’t work in the case of the Iranian regime. The Persians are crafty and clever, to be sure, and they command considerable technological resources. But the Iranian attacks on tankers in the Straits of Hormuz are crazy, and it may be the case that nothing but force will keep them in line. Without knowing all the facts, I won’t offer tactical advice to the Trump administration. But there are some plain facts here worth reviewing.
First, endangering the oil lifeline through the Straits of Hormuz doesn’t threaten the United States, which is self-sufficient in oil. Most of the oil leaving the Persian Gulf is sold to Asia. It happens that China is Iran’s biggest trading partner as well as a key supplier of arms and–to an extent we do not know–a provider of weapons technology. If Iran has any hope of evading American sanctions, it lies in China, which has been cautious in its recent dealings with the mullahs in the context of the trade war with the United States. For China, backing the mullahs is an option in case the trade war escalates into a broader conflict. Why would Iran threaten China’s oil supplies at a time when it urgently wants China’s help?
Secondly, Iran is at risk of losing its ally-of-convenience Russia, with whom it combined to keep the Assad government in power in Syria and to crush the Sunni opposition. Russia has accomplished its objectives in Syria, reinforcing its ally and keeping its naval station on the Mediterranean. Iran’s ambitions in Syria don’t coincide with Russian interests. Tehran wants to resettle large parts of the country with soldier-settlers and establish a militarized “Shi’ite crescent” reaching to the Mediterranean, risking war with Israel. Russia is happy with the status quo. Notably, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton will meet his Russian and Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem June 24. That is an unprecedented event, and bodes ill for Iran. Why Iran would want to bring the world’s ire down on its head just now is perplexing.
And today, the mullahs announced that they would breach the limits of the now-defunct JCPOA by June 27, by enriching more uranium than permitted. If the mullahs hoped for diplomatic cover from Europe or Japan, this isn’t the way to get it.
During the past week I’ve spoken to a number of skilled and experienced observers of the region, and every one them is hard put to make sense of Iranian motives.
In the absence of a rational explanation, let me offer this one: The mullahs are nuts. I don’t mean that they are nuts in the way that a power-mad tinpot dictator is nuts, but rather that they are world-historically, existentially, and metaphysically nuts. Their character and circumstances, that is to say, impel them toward actions that would be irrational for another character under other circumstances.
Iran may well become the first country in the world that will get old before it gets rich. Its fertility rate (the number of live births over the lifetime of an average woman) fell from 7 in 1979 to perhaps 1.7 today.
That produced an enormous generation of people now in their 20s to 40s who have very few children. As this generation ages, the proportion of Iranians over the age of 60 will soar from about 7% today to around 40% by mid-century.
Other countries face an aging crisis, but with ten times the per capita income: Iran’s nominal GDP per capita is only US$5,300, compared with US$56,000 for the United States, for example.No poor country can care for an elderly population comprising two-fifths of the total. Iran will undergo an economic disaster unprecedented in history. That is baked in the cake, and nothing its government can do will make much different at this late stage.
Iranians know their world is coming to an end and behave as if there is no tomorrow (which, in their case, there isn’t)…The number of marriages has fallen by 20% since 2012. In Iran, the customary marriage age range is 20-34 for men and 15-29 for women … 46% of men and 48% of women in those age ranges remain unmarried,”according to the national statistics agency. So-called white marriage, or cohabitation out of wedlock, is so common and controversial that the regime banned a women’s magazine [in 2015] for reporting on it.
Alongside the decline in marriage, a quarter of Iran’s married couples report that they cannot conceive children. A possible factor aggravating the infertility could be epidemic rates of untreated venereal disease, according to Iranian researchers, pointing to a deeper shift in social customs. Iran’s government believes that the Shia practice of “temporary marriage” is the culprit.
Social pathologies have metastasized under Iran’s clerical regime on a scale unlike anything observed in the decadent West. For the time being, the childless men of Iran’s last big generation provide cannon fodder for its foreign adventures. The supply of military-age men will fall drastically in 10 years (from about 7.8 million today to about 5.7 million in 2025).
That makes Iran exceptionally dangerous in the relative near-term. As a nation, it is demographically doomed, and has all the more reason to undertake military adventures while it still can.
Iran has to break out, or break down. Its dreams of a Shi’ite empire stretching from Afghanistan to Syria are not simply the effusions of a megalomaniac who has spent too much quality time with the hookah. It has no internal solution to its problems, so it hopes to mobilize the Shi’ites of neighboring countries. There are roughly as many Shi’ites in India and Pakistan as there are in Iran. The projected Shi’ite empire, Iran hopes, will solve its economic problems by seizing its neighbors’ oil–Azerbaijan, for example, or perhaps Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, which has a Shi’ite majority.
The mullahs are nuts, but they aren’t stupid. They know that if Iran is bottled up for the next twenty years, it will undergo an internal collapse. The alternative is to take desperate risks. The Obama administration (and, sadly, the George. W. Bush administraiton under the council of Condoleezza Rice) let Iran get away with murder–literally. The experience of the Iranian leaders teaches them that the West will back down before their threats. This time they will learn differently.